Monday, 25 July 2011

My 7 Links: Tales of a Brit Abroad

Jessica of Through My Eyes and Katy of Starry-Eyed Travels nominated me to take part in Tripbase's My 7 Links project, an endeavour designed to bring bloggers from all sectors together in a new way of sharing their work with the world and resurrecting long-forgotten posts.

Since moving back to the UK one year ago this Saturday, I've been trying my sometimes tenuously-linked best to continue Tales of a Brit Abroad, so the chance to peek into the blog's back catalogue and rediscover some of my old posts is a welcome opportunity.

Here are my seven links:

1. Most beautiful: Express Marrakech

My camera's far from the best on the market, but even its humble 8 megapixel powers managed to capture something of the beauty of Marrakech's medina. Spending just 48 hours there was an ideal weekend escape from the grim grey days of an English January, injecting my winter with the non-stop buzz of the city's old town, the colourful whirl of life in the souks and the budget bites on offer in the Djemaa el Fna.
This post was also published on Travel Blog Exchange and in the Manchester Evening News.

2. Most popular post: Bilbao: It ain't grim up north 

My second ever post remains my most popular - perhaps I peaked too soon? A record of a fun weekend spent in the Basque city of Bilbao, reading this post makes me want to explore northern Spain further.

3. Most controversial: Brushing shoulders with Brits abroad on the Costa del Sol

I'm not really in the business of polemical posting, but I think my most fitting post for this heading is this account of my summer 2010 visit to one of Britain's most popular foreign holiday destinations, the Costa del Sol. Part of the original premise of my blog was to uncover a side of Spain that most of my compatriots never witness, yet when re-visiting my teenage holiday destination I found far more unspoilt pockets and cultural fusion than I expected.

4. Most helpful: Madrid: My way or the guide's way?

Based on the idea that expats can sometimes make the best tour guides, this is my itinerary for a weekend in my former home city, the Spanish capital of Madrid.

5. Surprisingly successful: The story of pizza at La Perla di Napoli

I have no idea wy, but this tale of my 'last supper' at an eccentric Italian restaurant on the eve of my departure from Madrid is the second most popular post on Tales of a Brit Abroad.

6. One that didn't get the attention it deserved: A culinary experience in France's gastronomic capital

Perhaps because I enjoyed this Algerian meal in Lyon so much that over one year on I can still taste it, I hoped that this post would also be enjoyed by many.

7. The post I'm most proud of: Spain's World Cup victory, near hysteria and the goalie's cheekbones

Quite simply, this is my favourite post. Re-reading it always makes me laugh as I remember the night of the Spanish national football team's victory parade in July 2010, when my friend K and I chased their bus through the streets of Madrid as though we were trying to outrun Usain Bolt. One of the most fun nights of my life (and the night I proposed to Sergio Ramos) captured in my most fun post.

Thanks for nominating me and giving me the excuse to wander down blog memory lane, Jessica and Katy!

My nominations for the project are:
Becoming Sevillana (British expat Kim in Sevilla)
The Pea's Kneas (Oxfordshire food blogger Sarah)
Rachael Schofield (Rachael's visual design and travel diary)
Scriptorious Logos (books, films and musings from Gemma)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Sevilla Tapas tour: Around Sevilla, one tapas bar at a time

A plate of perfectly-prepared ensaladilla de gambas in a swanky modern gastro bar. A peep at the Corpus Christi preparations in Seville's Plaza de San Francisco. A helping of creamy goat's cheese with caramelised onions served by suited and booted waiters with slicked-back hair. A walk through the former Jewish quarter, the barrio de Santa Cruz, followed by a selection of tuna tapas at a specialist bar-restaurant. This is no ordinary tour: it's a Sevilla Tapas tour.

For the past few years, Canadian-born Shawn Hennessy has put her extensive knowledge of her adopted home city's culinary scene to good use, guiding small groups of visitors around Seville's tapas bars on tours tailored to their own tastes. Staying with my friend Vicki in nearby Utrera for a few days, we presented a double challenge: two pescetarian former residents of the city. Would Shawn be able to cater to our dietary requirements and satisfy our stomachs in previously uncharted tapas territory?

In a word, yes. Meeting by the cathedral for a lunchtime tour, Shawn reeled off a list of four bars we'd never visited, some we'd never even heard of. So far, so shameful on our part. First on the list was Albarama, a recent arrival on the Seville scene serving creative modern morsels, as well as twists on traditional tapas. Settling in with a glass of wine, friendly Shawn talked us through the menu, helping us to select three tapas: those on the tour can select anything they like, but those unfamiliar with Spanish cooking or just keen to sample each restaurant's specialities can learn a lot from her guidance. Our choices of boletus croquettes with a leek sauce, ensaladilla de gambas (a potato, mayonnaise and prawn salad) and the 'envoltini' (squid ribbons with asparagus, served with tartar sauce) were beautifully presented, but style didn't triumph over substance: they tasted as good as they looked. Vegetarian croquetas can be a dull, greasy affair, but the high-quality ingredients and addition of the leek sauce made these a tasty dish even for meat-eaters, while the ensaladilla even won round serial prawn-dodger Vicki.

Croquetas and envoltini

Stomachs suitably warmed up, we moved on to the much more traditional Enrique Becerra, a restaurant and tapas bar so old school it even features pillars looted from the Roman ruins at Italica in the days when pilfering from ancient monuments wasn't frowned upon. As we waited for our tapas to arrive, we chatted easily about food, life in Spain and Seville: Shawn normally talks to visitors about the city, but as we were already familiar with the city, talk naturally wandered wider. Presented to us by a smartly-clad yet super friendly waiter, our saquito de bacalo ('cod-filled parcel of joy' is how any good dictionary should translate it) and portion of goat's cheese served with caramelised onions and fresh bread raised the bar even higher. The saquito's pastry was perfectly crisp; the cod flaky and light. The goat's cheese was creamy and lip-smackingly moreish - and I don't even usually like goat's cheese. We were definitely in no doubt of the quality of ingredients used here.

Saquito de bacalao

By stop number three, participants are usually tiring, their stomachs showing signs of struggle. Not so the two hardy northerners: we were just getting started on Seville's culinary delights. In the heart of the barrio de Santa Cruz, La Sal is a smart restaurant and tapas bar run by Charo, who hails from coastal Zahara de los Atunes in Cadiz, where her family own another restaurant. Both eateries specialise in tuna almadraba, freshly caught and flash-frozen for maximum freshness and taste. We tucked into tuna tataky (a rare cut of tuna soaked in a soy and ginger sauce) and tuna steak roasted with rosemary and served with a red pepper conft, with seaweed tortillitas rounding off the sea-based theme. All of this was washed down by a refreshing glass of Botani wine, produced in Malaga and one of Shawn's favourites for good reason - she certainly has a finely-tuned palate.

Tortillitas  and tataky

With an extra stop thrown in out of generosity for a fellow blogger, Shawn saved the best until last. By the time the three of us rolled into Vineria San Telmo at 4pm, our stomachs were reserving just a sliver of space. But once Vicki and I saw the menu, our capacity to eat increased: squid ink spaghetti served with scallops, bulgur wheat with mushrooms and truffle oil and panko prawns with a courgette stack were all as delicious as they sounded, and worth the waistband strain. I couldn't even play favourites; every dish was full of flavour and immaculately presented. The gorgeous tapas, boho-chic interior and friendly international staff made Vineria San Telmo a winner in our books - so much so that we somehow managed to make room for a dessert of three-chocolate flan.

Panko prawns, squid ink spaghetti & bulgur wheat with mushrooms

Our afternoon spent in Seville in Shawn's company was quite simply one of the best I've had in a long time. The tour was unhurried, fun and full of expert advice. If you're a food lover looking to get the most out of a trip to the city, a Sevilla Tapas tour is the perfect place to start. Just make sure to wear something with an elasticated waistband: it wouldn't do to restrict your eating abilities with so many tapa treats to be had.

To find out more about Sevilla Tapas tours, visit Shawn's website, which also features comprehensive listings of tapas bars all over Seville.

Monday, 4 July 2011

An overnight stop at Yotel Gatwick

I envy people who can fall asleep on public transport. Not so much my friend who regularly used to nod off on Madrid's circle line, waking up at the same stop on every lap, but the ability to lay your head anywhere certainly comes into its own when travelling. I've lost count of the number of times I've stared wide-eyed and wide awake around a coachload of faintly snoring passengers at an hour when we all should have been tucked up in our respective beds. Journeys to airports to catch a red-eye flight are the worst provokers of jealousy: never have I been so envious of open-mouthed drooling in public as I have at 3am on the way to Gatwick.

Before a recent 6am flight to Seville, I decided enough was enough: I couldn't face the 2am bus journey. Spending the night at Gatwick was an obvious solution, but given my inability to sleep anywhere other than the most logical of places and my need for a bit of comfort, the check-in area floor was never going to be an option. A hotel stay was definitely required, but I didn't really want to rise at 3am to get a connecting bus from a hotel to the terminal.

The solution to my conundrum came in the form Yotel, the 'cabin hotel' handily located in Gatwick's South Terminal arrivals area (and just a few steps away from departures). Founded by the people behind Yo Sushi, this smart little spot offers weary travellers the chance to bed down in a private ensuite room of petite proportions before or after their flights. With cabins available for a minimum of 4 hours (and a minimum cost of £26), it's the perfect place to get some shut-eye in comfort.

Arriving on Friday at 9.30pm, the lift whisked me away from the throng outside arrivals and into a pocket of low-lit serenity in the underbelly of the airport. I attempted to check in using the machines outside the door, but seeing me faffing around in a quest to find my reservation confirmation, the friendly receptionist waved me inside and did the honours, talking me through the cabin's features and even offering me an alarm clock and a pair of earplugs.

Stepping inside the corridor to the cabins, the sense of calm increased. This place was clearly designed with nothing but rest in mind. Opening the door to my premium cabin, I found a 4 star hotel room in miniature: a double bed in a semi-upright position, ready to go horizontal at the touch of a button; a wall-mounted flat screen TV; a drop-down desk; clothes hanging space; a full-length mirror and a bathroom which ran the entire length of the room, featuring a waterfall shower. The cabins might feel a little snug for 2 people, but for a few hours' rest you certainly couldn't complain, and the galley-style bathroom was far better than some I've encountered in bigger hotels.

A premium cabin

Too tired to take advantage of the free Wifi and tens of TV channels, I got ready for bed immediately. Settling back for a night's sleep, I lowered the bed (in standard cabins guests unfold them from the walls themselves) and dimmed the lights to a soft purple glow. With a choice of light settings by the side of your bed, you'll have no problem winding down or waking yourself back up again. The mattress was firm but comfortable and there was a stack of fluffy pillows for maximum comfort. As I switched the lights off entirely, I didn't envy those crashed out on the coach one little bit.

Rising at 4am, I showered, repacked my overnight bag and checked out, pleasantly surprised by how awake I felt at such an unearthly hour. Almost bouncing into the flight check-in queue, I felt fresh and ready for the journey and a day of sightseeing in the Seville heat. Looking around at my weary-eyed, crumple-clothed fellow passengers, I couldn't say the same for them. Yotel, I salute you: you're the perfect solution to my early flight dilemma. No more wakeful nights on a bus for me - I'll be soundly asleep in my little cabin.

Yotel also has branches at Heathrow Terminal 4, Amsterdam Schipol and a new city hotel in New York. I was a guest of Yotel.

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